A very beautiful thing...
What follows is a letter I wrote to my good friend Chris, who lives in South Carolina. In mid-August he had visited me in Colorado, and in doing so was able to see the Rockies for the first time in his life. He was tremendously excited, and we spent two spectacular days hiking and camping in Rocky Mountain National Park.
A month after his visit, I was back in the park – this time alone on a short backpack in the Glacier Gorge and Long’s Peak areas. It was another great trip; I scrambled up the Spearhead, got chased off Long’s Peak by hail and lightning, and tracked a weasel in the bushes around Black Lake. On the last day of my trip I hiked a short way up from camp to Andrews Glacier, hoping to make it up to the Continental Divide. I didn’t make the Divide, but that turned out just fine, as I describe in my letter.
Sept. 26, 2007
I have seen something wonderful and very beautiful. I do not know if I can describe it, but I will try. Two weeks have passed, but I have not written anything out of fear that I will fail; that the words will be so terribly insufficient, and that forever after I will have wrapped this memory in a tawdry shroud, entombing it in my veneration. But it is too wonderful a thing to bury or horde. It was given to me out of nothing, and if I do not share it, I am less than nothing.
Two weeks ago I was hiking up near the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park. I had walked up from camp towards the Divide in the morning, hoping to explore Andrews Glacier, a permanent snowfield which spills down from a low-point in the Divide and drains off into a green-water, wind-whipped (at least on that day) tarn.
I had worked my way up onto the snowfield earlier in the day. The glacier was in late-summer condition, covered in debris and black with silt and rocks in many sections. I wasn't able to reach the top because the ice was slippery, and I had no tool or protective gear.
In late summer the glacier becomes a patterned sheet of ice and slushy crust, with rocks embedded in the ice-lattice and melting out in tiny, isolated pools. Rivulets and even some larger streams rush down the ice, carving miniature gullies and piling rocks and pebbles against the sides of the field.
The late-summer glacier has a peculiar smell for the high country. Under that wide sky usually I find only the smell of the wind, or a whiff of the evergreen's sap leaking up from the trees. The glacier smells like a dank old cellar; everything is dirt and moisture. Under the summer sun the glacial silt has piled up at the edges of the snow, and the rocks are smeared with a crust of fine powder, drying and stinking and sometimes running down the sheet in the tiny streams, leaving the inlet of the tarn with a fine coating of silt over the rocks.
Having been turned back by the slippery ice (and an overall malaise which was setting in, on this last day of a multi-day trip), I was heading down the edge of the snowfield, picking my way over the loose rocks and through the puddles. As I neared the tarn, I passed from sun into shadow. I looked up, immediately and instinctively, wary of sudden storms moving up over the Divide.
It was no cloud, but the tip of a vast shadow cast by the spires and towers along the ridge to the south. The tallest pinnacle spread its cool dark across the rubble and down to the edge of the glacier.
The sun was high in the sky (it was nearing eleven in the morning) and sat just behind the apex of the tower. It lit the sky around the peak in a miniature corona, as if during an eclipse, but softer. The light sky around the spire was more clear than white, and the shadowed rock leaned forward out of the sky. All around the halo the sky was pure blue with an incredible depth. The blue was neither dark nor light, but seemed to recede, as if I were looking through the miles and miles of sky, out into the emptiness.
As I looked up at the tower, my eyes caught on moving light. I blinked my eyes involuntarily, to clear them, but soon I saw another flicker. Once I focused, I could see shards of gold - bright flashes like golden mirrors - tumbling in the sky around the peak. I was awed and confused --- it looked as if someone were standing behind the peak, throwing cut pieces of gold foil into the wind coming across from the Divide. I wondered if the flashes were snow, or ice crystals on the wind, but there weren't enough clouds for snow (and not enough points of light, either).
Finally I began to see darting shadows amidst the fluttering gold, and I could make out, barely, the torpedo shapes of tiny birds, as they whirled and turned in the air around the rock. The golden foil was the sun through their open wings, as they spread them out to bank and wheel around the spire. The flashes and whorls were filled with delicacy and intimacy, but at the same time I was overcome with a feeling of great immensity, of the space between myself and the wing-flashes, and the sky receding ever behind them. I had the impression of watching the face of God written in the infinite emptiness of the sky.
I stared at the dancing lights, struck still and silent, until the sun moved out around the edge of the peak. Then I scrabbled down the rocks a bit further, chasing the sundial. I was able to get back into the shadow, but I never could find the lights again. I don't know if the birds moved on, or if perhaps it was only at that one angle, that one exact place on the glacier, where the direction of light hit the bird wings and caused the phenomenon. Or maybe my eyes were now too filled with the raw sun, and the shadow lights were too faint to make any impress.
I tried to photograph the sun corona behind the peak, but of course it didn't register. In the images everything is just light and dark; the camera (and my skill with it) are completely insufficient for subtleties of light which I could barely follow in my eyes.
After a time I traversed the final rocks to the edge of the tarn. I met some other hikers coming up, and we talked about the conditions on the snow. I refilled my water from the lake (down at the non-silted end) and then I started down. I thought about the birds on the way down to camp, but I also thought about the time and my schedule for the hike out.
Two weeks later, I still see the wing-flashes, if I push my memory back. But the feeling of being there, on the melting ice with the golden-foil wings above me, is always with me, behind the strata of worry and happiness and frustration which is my life. I do not know if I will ever see the wing-flashes again. Certainly others have seen them; it can't be so uncommon a thing. But maybe this was the only time for me. If it was, it is enough. The mountains will always be enough.